There is pretty solid critical consensus that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie. Some prefer ANH for its classic structure, but come on. Empire is it.
I didn’t come around on Empire until middle school. The prequels were first announced in 1993 but there wasn’t a massive flow of insider news on the internet until the late 90’s. So at the time I came to love The Empire Strikes Back, my friends and I would trade theories and hearsay about the prequels to come. We assumed they would be about Boba Fett fighting in the Clone Wars. Oh to be young.
I really loved AT-ATs as a kid. My older cousin had the original Hasbro one, and I later found it when I was 18 and cleaning out my aunt’s closets for her. That AT-AT toy is awesome. I remember watching ESB on a cable broadcast in the breakfast den late in my childhood home late one night, and feeling the loneliness Luke must have felt on Dagobah, and empathizing with his decision to ignore Yoda’s warnings and do what’s right. Those are my only ESB-specific memories.
As a young adult, I came to appreciate ESB for the lighting, mainly. It’s one of the moodiest looking movies ever, crazy for a children’s space ship pew pew pew picture.
I mean, it’s still incredible.
One thing about The Empire Strikes Back that I’ve never noticed before is that it’s very light on aliens. There’s none on the rebel base in the Hoth system, and the only aliens on Cloud City are Ugnuaghts. There’s Ugnaughts, Yoda, Chewie, and a few bounty hunters. For creatures there’s tauntauns, the wampa, and the Dagobah bog snake. That’s it. Compared the the menageries on Tatooine in the other two OT movies, it’s an interesting distinction. Not sure what to take from it.
The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith are the only two Star Wars movies that don’t end with massive land or space battles, and the assault on the Hoth base in act 1 is the only major battle in Empire at all. There’s, like, four TIE fighters that chase the Falcon into asteroids. This one is character, character, character.
We’re all very lucky that the ’97, ’05, and ’11 updates to the best Star Wars movie also happen to be the best updates with the most restraint. All the effects are cleaned-up. Bespin has a lot of background paintings replaced and new background windows added, and I like those changes fine. Replacing the original Emperor with a new Ian McDiarmid performance works great. (By the way, the Emperor appears larger than life in that scene, making it seem less noteworthy that Snoke appears so large in The Force Awakens.) The extended Wampa scene is the only extended scene in any of the films that is worth having.
The Empire Strikes Back connects to the prequels very well. With the prequels having been made, when Vader appeals to the Emperor that Luke could be turned, it now plays as though Vader is playing dumb to the Emperor, and the Emperor playing dumb right along. Obviously Vader’s perfect apprentice would be his son. And after Obi-Wan hacked Palpatine’s midichlorian-crafted perfect apprentice to bits, perhaps that man’s offspring would be a better option than the cybernetic-assisted remains of the original revelation. Both Vader and the Emperor know these things, and what was originally a small little plot-moving scene becomes a delicious bit of subterfugal drama.
Even better, in the Vader-Luke climactic battle, with Luke hanging on for dear life, Vader pleads for Luke to join him as father-and son to “end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy”. There’s no mention of the Emperor there, and the line ties beautifully into Anakin’s political motivations for siding with Palpatine, namely a belief that a strong and benevolent ruler is a more effective mode of rule than chittering politicians. It’s interesting to view all of Vader’s actions in all the movies as being motivated by a desire for order.
The Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t connect to the prequels as well. His muppet-ish antics in the beginning are jarring, even if it’s revealed to be a sort of ruse. (I prefer to think he’s delirious that the son of Skywalker has returned, and spends the next few scenes conflicted with his humbled ego, and whether or not to train another too-old Skywalker.) Yoda says a Jedi only uses his powers “for knowledge and attack, never defense,” well then Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith fooled me. Yoda also says Anakin “chose the quick and easy path” to the dark side, but did he really? Anakin’s path to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith is pretty agonizing. It’s not really presented as a seductive shortcut.
What does connect to the prequels are all the scenes where Yoda communes with the ghost of Obi-Wan. The prequel movies give those scenes a lot more weight. Without the prequels, those scenes seem to be about the Jedi Master’s hesitation toward Luke — is he too much like his father? But with the prequels now a part of the Star Wars saga, those scenes have a subtext: the Jedi Master’s hesitation toward their own failings. The question is now not only “Can Luke complete the training?” but also “Can Obi-Wan and Yoda successfully train Luke?” The galaxy was always at stake. Now the personal stakes for the characters are higher.
But there’s no need to judge The Empire Strikes Back on how well it synergizes with episodes earlier in the chronology. The Empire Strikes Back is undeniable on its own terms. All the vehicles are awesome. Side-characters like Lando, Lobot, and Boba Fett hint at rich backstories. It has the best performances from all three leads. It is one of the most beautiful science-fiction films ever made. It’s structurally perfect, takes the viewer though a range of emotions, and ends on a satisfying note that is down-beat but not depressing.
I doubt a Disney Star Wars picture will ever be anything like it.